While consuming a catfish dinner on a recent summer evening in his home on the South Side of Chicago, Notre Dame noseguard and cocaptain Chris Zorich pauses between bites to consider a question. His eyes take on a steely glint. "My dream?" he says. "It's to knock the quarterback's head off, then watch it go rolling down the field." His mother, Zora, looks horrified. "Oh, no, Chris," she says, and buries her head in her hands.
But Zorich is not deterred. He says, "Look, whatever you can do to an opponent is never too much. I will bite somebody's head off. I will tear his helmet off. All I do is give 100 percent. I'm sorry."
Then, this small storm having passed, he refocuses on the catfish. "Pass the salt, please," he says mildly.
Zorich is the toughest and most vicious player in college football. Period. John Potocki, who was Zorich's coach at Chicago Vocational High, says Chris is even more intense than Dick Butkus, another alumnus. "Chris is the meanest man in the meanest game," says Potocki. "He is as vicious as a player can be."
USC quarterback Todd Marinovich, who faced the 280-pound Zorich for the first time last season in a 28-24 Trojan loss, says, "Every time I walked up behind the center, Zorich was the guy my eyes went to. He's scary." Stanford fullback Tommy Vardell recalls a moment last year during the Irish's 27-17 defeat of the Cardinal when the whistle blew just as Zorich was about to level him. "You're lucky, number 44," Zorich snarled.
He wasn't kidding. Not since Hugh Green, a defensive end for Pitt who struck fear in offenses from 1977 to '80, has a defensive player been such a force in the college game. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who was Notre Dame's defensive coordinator for the past two seasons, says of Zorich, "He is soooooo intense. In years ahead he'll be the standard against which all noseguards will be measured."
Zorich should win the Heisman Trophy. He probably won't, of course, because the shortsighted voters will give the award to some pretty-boy back. That's what happened to Green in '80, when he was clearly the best candidate but lost out to South Carolina running back George Rogers. It doesn't matter. Those who know football, know.
"The most vicious man in football?" says Zorich. "O.K., I'll accept that as a nonofficial accolade. But I don't consider myself vicious." He falls silent. Then that steely glint returns, and he says, "Well, maybe. I definitely do not take any crap from anybody on the field."
None. He screams like a banshee, he intimidates. He is everywhere, a wreck waiting to happen. Zora can't believe it. "He's so shy," she says. "He cries at sad movies." Nevertheless, Potocki gave Chris a plaque that reads: YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I SHALL FEAR NO EVIL. CAUSE I'M THE MEANEST SON OF A BITCH IN THE VALLEY.
How mean? Three times last spring, coach Lou Holtz threw Zorich out of practice. The first time was when he gave a teammate a forearm under his chin after the whistle. Holtz saw that and went nuts. Two days later, Zorich recalls, "a lineman kept hitting me, so I decided to get in the last hit." Holtz saw that and went nuts. Afterward, Zorich apologized to his teammates for being too aggressive. But a few days later he felt the offensive line was coming off the ball too hard in a no-pads drill, so he gathered the defense to plot revenge. Holtz heard that and went nuts again. Still, Holtz has said, "Chris is fast and strong. Not a bad combination for a defensive lineman, huh?"